Poet in New York
Poet in New York
by Federico García Lorca
THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of 34 poems set predominantly in New York but also in Vermont and Cuba, in 1929 and 1930; published as a collection in Spanish (as Poeta en Nueva York) in 1940, in English in 1940.
Reflecting the sense of isolation and depression felt by the poet at the time, the work denigrates modern, techno-industrial civilization as represented by a dehumanized, materialistic, hostile, chaotic New York City.
Events in History at the Time of the Poems
Both a playwright and a poet, Federico García Lorca would become the most internationally renowned Spanish writer of the twentieth century. He was born in 1898 in Fuente Vaqueros, a village in Andalusia near Granada, to Federico García Rodríguez, a wealthy landowner, and to Vicenta Lorca Romero, a schoolteacher. His mother instilled in him a love for music, dance, and literature. Gracía Lorca attended the University of Granada, where he studied law, philosophy, and letters, and met two professors who greatly impacted his life as mentors: Martín Domínguez Berrueta and Fernando de los Ríos. After participating in cultural history tours organized by Domínguez Berrueta, Lorca wrote his first work, Impresiones y paisajes (Impressions and Landscapes) in 1918. It presents a prose account of the people and countryside that he observed on these trips. Fernando de los Ríos, a leading socialist figure, convinced both Lorca’s parents that the youth should study in Madrid, and so in 1919 Lorca moved to the capital city to live in the Residencia de Estudiantes (a type of residential college) of the University of Madrid. A meeting place of young artists and writers, the Residencia brought Lorca into contact with Salvador Dalí, and the two developed a romantic relationship for a period of time. Lorca lived in the Residencia until 1928, during which time he wrote three books of poetry and several plays. In 1929 and 1930 he traveled to the United States and Cuba, returning to spend most of his time in Madrid, remaining a vital member of the literary and artistic community there. On August 19, 1936, right-wing gunmen in the countryside near Granada executed Lorca because he was viewed as a liberal threat to the military regime. Poet in New York was his fourth collection, following Libro de poemas (1920; Book of Poems), Canciones (1927; Songs), and Romancero gitano (1928; Gypsy Ballads, 1953), with the latter two establishing Lorca as a writer of popular renown. Poet in New York offers a unique perspective on America’s urban culture. Lorca’s disorientation and isolation in New York strengthens his own feelings about his native Spain and about what it means to be Hispanic.
Events in History at the Time of the Poems
Personal and national depression
Lorca arrived in New York City in July 1929. During his residence in the city he stayed in a room in John Jay Hall, a dormitory on the Columbia University campus. His plan was to study English at the university, but he withdrew from class after a week because he believed himself unable to learn the language. He stayed in New York until April 1930, when he was invited to lecture in Havana, Cuba.
Four months after García Lorca arrived in New York, Wall Street suffered its horrendous stock market crash, and soon the Great Depression was wreaking havoc on the U.S. economy. The Great Depression deprived millions of Americans jobs and rendered many people homeless. At the height of the Depression, the jobless composed a quarter of the total American labor force. Banks folded, factories sat idle, and companies laid off workers because of the economic downturn. The human suffering was enormous everywhere, but worst of all in the African American neighborhoods.
For those among the urban black population the levels of poverty most had learned to endure fell to depths for which even long experience could not prepare them. In Chicago’s … South Side … they lived 90,000 to the square mile … as compared to 20,000 to the square mile for the non-black population.… In New York City’s Harlem, the situation was hardly better. More than ten thousand people … “lived in cellars and basements which had been converted into makeshift flats. Packed in damp, rat-ridden dungeons. Floors were of cracked concrete, and the walls were… rust-streaked. There were only slits for a window and a tin can in a corner was the only toilet.” There was no heat in the winter, no air in the summer.… Death was a commonplace.… Most of the mortality … was from disease.
(Watkins and Hedgman in Watkins, pp. 62-64)
Harlem in the 1920s was the center of New York’s African-American community. Thousands of children died yearly here from tuberculosis and pneumonia. According to a New York Herald Tribune article appearing in February 1930, unemployment was five times higher in Harlem than in the rest of the city. Harlem in the 1920s attracted almost 88,000 mostly penniless immigrants from the Caribbean, who crowded into an already densely populated area that was deteriorating daily. Criminals, prostitutes, and delinquents abounded in the neighborhood (C. Brian Morris, América, p. 26).
In 1929 conditions promised only to get worse. The top 0.1 percent of Americans earned as much as the bottom 42 percent. Many middle- and lower-class Americans lost their homes and farms, and middle-income Americans especially focused their energies on saving money instead of spending it. This caused less demand for goods and a concomitant increase in stores’ and factories’ inventories, which, in turn, led to a slowdown in industrial production and a rise in employee layoffs, with African Americans being the last hired and the first fired. A pervasive hopelessness filled the air as people went month after month without work, perhaps exacerbating Lorca’s personal depression at the time.
Long a city of economic extremes, New York during the Depression was a city with a deeply intensified disparity. Wealthy New Yorkers would drive along in luxury automobiles while their poorest neighbors begged for food or stood in soup lines. By the late 1920s, the city had become highly industrialized, employing countless workers in manufacturing. Lorca’s impression of New York—gray, natureless, cold—was formed in part by the economic shambles it was in, but also by the isolation and confusion he experienced being in a large, noisy, industrial American city. Contributing to his negative outlook of the city was his own emotional state: beginning in the summer of 1928, Lorca suffered an emotional crisis whose exact cause is only conjecture. He carried this depression with him throughout his trip to the United States, finding little relief in his new environment. New York was not the sunny, rural landscape Lorca was so accustomed to back in Andalusia. He spoke almost no English, which further isolated him. He immediately identified with the African Americans, though, in particular to their music: “What marvelous songs.… Only our Anadalusian cante jondo could be compared to them” (Lorca in Gibson, p. 255). The visit to New York was supposed to be a welcome escape from the pressures of his life in Spain. In a letter written on board the ship taking him to America, Lorca states: “I don’t know why I left; I ask myself that a hundred times a day. I look at myself in the mirror of this narrow cabin and I don’t recognize myself. I seem to be another Federico” (Lorca in Harris, p. 10; trans. M. Penrose). The confession is revealing: to some degree, Lorca seems to have been suffering from an identity crisis. Considering the state that Lorca and New York were in while he resided in the city, it is no wonder that his poetry paints such a negative vision of it, especially if one considers that it was his first time living abroad and he did not speak English.
Activism and artistic expression
Lorca lived in Harlem (while residing at Columbia University) and frequented its establishments. He befriended African American writer Nella Larsen, with whom he often visited local cabarets and theaters. On the streets of Harlem, he would listen to jazz being played and witness the daily lives of thousands of local inhabitants. Meanwhile, bringing the disparity right into the neighborhood, whites came to attend Harlem clubs and parties and listen to jazz artists like Duke Ellington.
Because of Harlem’s squalid conditions, social unrest became commonplace, especially during the depression. Harlem in the early 1900s was an area frequented by “soapbox” speakers, street-corner activists sharing political ideas and getting listeners to think about their lives in social and economic terms. Demonstrations and rallies attracted whites and blacks alike. The Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey, a key protest figure, started the “Back to Africa” movement that promoted the return of all African Americans to the continent from whence they originally came. Declaring himself provisional emperor of Africa, he put on ostentatious parades for his followers (Morris, América, p. 22). Garvey and other black nationalists urged African Americans to take control of their lives: “’Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will,’ he thundered” (Nash, p. 797). By 1927, Garvey would be deported as an undesirable alien, but his message had registered, and he left behind other black leaders who would continue urging African Americans to take matters in their own hands and improve their working and living conditions. Meanwhile, the Depression set in and conditions worsened rather than improved, which led to Lorca’s prediction of a human eruption in one of his poems. Only ten years earlier, in 1919 and the early 1920s, a rash of race riots had spread through cities across America, furnishing substantial precedent for the prediction.
Along with the activism, Harlem during the 1920s experienced a cultural and artistic rebirth called the Harlem Renaissance. Primarily a literary movement, it blossomed from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, during Lorca’s stay there. Writers such as W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston propelled the Renaissance forward with works that shared with the mostly unknowing American public the black experience.
Lorca resided in Havana from March until June of 1930, invited there by the Hispano-Cuban Institute to give lectures on his works. Times were dismal in this country too. Cuba suffered greatly in the worldwide Depression. The sugar industry, the mainstay of the economy, saw prices tumble to all-time lows. Thousands of Cubans lost their jobs and tens of thousands were chronically underemployed when sugar prices first fell in 1926. By the early 1930s, thousands more had become jobless. In search of work, many Cubans migrated from the countryside to the cities, only to discover that people there were being laid off in record numbers. Many of those who chose to stay in the countryside died of starvation. Protests erupted throughout the country, the protesters lodging demands for jobs, improved wages, and less severe working conditions. The president of Cuba at the time, Ger-ardo Machado, tried to suppress the protests with brute force, his early popularity beginning to plummet as moderate and radical leftist groups turned on him. Civil unrest continued unabated, and in 1932 Machado suspended the Constitution. A general strike ensued, followed by the opposition’s takeover of the military. These two events forced Machado to resign the presidency in 1933.
Turmoil in Spain
Lorca returned to Spain in June 1930. He came back to a country in deep turmoil: Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship had just ended and the era of the Second Republic had dawned. In 1923 Miguel Primo de Rivera, an An-dalusian army general, had assumed power as “prime minister” (in fact dictator) after leading a successful coup on behalf of Alfonso XIII, the king of Spain. All the king’s ministers resigned, and Alfonso appointed Primo de Rivera as prime minister. However, refusing to abide by the constitution, Primo de Rivera failed to reconvene parliament, and Alfonso did nothing to stop him. After America’s Wall Street disaster on October 29, 1929, the peseta lost much of its value overnight and the relatively prosperous economic times in Spain came to an abrupt end. Subsequently Primo de Rivera made a decision regarding military promotions that undermined the king’s powers and contradicted what many army generals wanted. The aging dictator lost the support not only of the king but also of the only institution in Spain that could have kept him in power—the military. Under pressure from army generals, Alfonso, who had tried to save face for having given Primo de Rivera control over the government in the first place, finally dismissed the dictator in 1930.
Primo de Rivera’s ousting, however, did not end the turmoil in Spain. It continued with the launching of the Second Republic in April 1931. The democratic government installed by the Second Republic experienced intense factional fighting between leftists and rightists. The Republic would last until the outbreak of civil war in 1936. In 1939 fascist general Francisco Franco declared victory; he would rule Spain with an iron fist for the next three and a half decades, quashing any chance of maintaining a republic.
As the Second Republic was being launched, Lorca set about publishing in magazines several of the poems written by him in the Americas. He often read these poems to friends at private gatherings; by the mid-1930s many of those in The Poet in New York collection had been circulated in print or in person through his readings. Like many of his intellectual and artistic friends, Lorca espoused a leftist ideology and supported liberal political groups. His involvement with Spain’s left cost him his life when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. Lorca’s fame as a writer and intellectual made him a target for those who espoused rightist politics.
Generation of 1927
While Primo de Rivera was still a dictator, several young Spanish poets were coming of age and beginning to make a name for themselves. This group, which came to be called the Generatión del 27 (Generation of 1927), included the following members: Pedro Salinas, Jorge Guillén, Gerardo Diego, Vicente Aleixandre, Dámaso Alonso, Emilio Prados, Rafael Al-berti, Luis Cernuda, Manuel Altolaguirre, and Federico García Lorca. In 1927 almost every member of the circle paid homage to and celebrated the life of the seventeenth-century Spanish poet Luis de Góngora on the tricentennial anniversary of his death by dedicating essays, books, conferences, and critical editions to him.
Taken from this occasion, the name Generation of 1927 came to designate the group of poets. Although they had very different personalities and writing styles, aside from the mutual friendship, members shared several common characteristics: (a) they showed a progressive bent; (b) they all resided in Madrid during the 1920s and 1930s; (c) the majority of them went into exile during or after the Civil War; (d) all were members of the bourgeoisie; and (e) in their work, one sees an attempt at perfection and reflection about language in an effort to extract from it all its expressive possibilities (Ramoneda, pp. 40-43).
The Spanish exile and expatriate community
Lorca voluntarily accompanied his mentor and friend, Fernando de los Ríos, who was exiled by the Primo de Rivera regime, to New York City. The company that Lorca kept while in the United States consisted mainly of other Spanish expatriates. These were people he had known for several years, including his mentor Fernando de los Ríos, the poet Dámaso Alonso, the painter Gabriel Garcia Maroto, the dancer Argentinita, and the bullfighter Ignacio Sanchez Mejías.
Lorca, like practically all members of the Generation of 27, spent some time abroad. Most of the poets taught Spanish language and literature at universities. Salinas became a Spanish assistant instructor at the Sorbonne and at Cambridge University and taught at a couple of universities in the continental United States and at one in Puerto Rico. Guillén served as a Spanish assistant instructor at Oxford University and the Sorbonne and taught at several universities in the United States. Prados studied at the universities of Freiburg and Berlin. Cernuda was named Spanish assistant instructor at the University of Toulouse. Altolaguirre lived in London from 1933-35, where he established the journal 1616. Alonso spent time teaching at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and at several American universities. Of the ten members of this circle of poets, six went into exile during the Spanish Civil War or after it ended in 1939 (Salinas, Cernuda, Guillen, Altolaguirre, Prados, and Alberti) because they disagreed vehemently with the politics of Franco’s fascist regime. Alonso, Diego, and Aleixandre stayed in Spain. Lorca, as mentioned earlier, was shot to death at the outset of the war. Their foreign visits and/or residencies allowed these writers to understand humanity at an international level, at the same time permitting them to look more objectively at their own nation.
LUIS DE GÓNGORA (1561-1627)
Born in Cordoba (in Andalusia) into an aristocratic family, Góngora would become Spain’s most prominent Baroque poet. During his youth he became a clergyman, but he never took the vocation seriously, instead spending his time writing, gambling, or attending bullfights. Still, he was named chaplain to the court of Phillip III (1578-1621), a privileged position that allowed him to travel around Spain on ecclesiastic missions. His works, which include the long poems Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (1612, Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea), Soledades (1613, Solitude), and over 100 ballads and 200 sonnets, display a flowery but elegant cultivated style that incorporates heavy usage of metaphors, hyperbatons, and hyperboles. For example, Góngora’s clever use of metaphor comes to the fore in “Soneto CLXVI”:
While trying with your tresses to compete
In vain the sun’s rays shine on burnished gold;
While with abundant scorn across the plain
Does your white brow the lily’s hue behold.
(Góngora, trans. Alix Ingber)
The speaker compares the woman’s hair to gold, against which the sun’s rays cannot compete, and her brow to the white lily. By doing so, he evinces the beauty and perfection of his idol. Gongora often wrote of the search for beauty and absolute perfection in his sonnets. His hallmark lay in his ability to cultivate speech and to inject it with sophistication and beauty. His style, flowery and mellifluous, became known as gongorismo or culteranismo because of its recourse to cultivated subjects and images. Gongora died in 1627 after suffering a stroke the year before.
The Poems in Focus
Poet in New York contains ten sections. The first, labeled “Poems of Solitude at Columbia University,” reflects the loneliness and isolation Lorca experienced in New York. He sees himself as a victim of the chaos of life and meditates on the innocence of his childhood. Section Two, “The Blacks,” and Section Three, “Streets and Dreams,” are centered around the religious motifs of Paradise Lost and the Dance of Death. In “The Blacks,” Lorca portrays the African American community as the innocent victims of white civilization who will rise up to seek vengeance. Blacks have come to symbolize confused humanity in a chaotic, ruthless world (del Rio in Garcia Lorea, p. xix). In “Streets and Dreams,” Lorca presents a portrait of a modern, desolate city; the section opens with a poem titled “Dance of Death,” in which a grotesque African mask comes to New York to preside over the dance. The participants in this dance are not the dead, but the living. Grief and death are ubiquitous, and the world is subjugated by power, greed, and lust. The fourth and fifth sections, “Poems from Lake Eden Mills” and “In the Farmer’s Cabin, Country Near Newburg,” represent Lorca’s escape from the city to a charming rustic setting. The speaker changes his tone, softening his vision of the world and paralleling it to the beauty of the bucolic oasis in which he finds himself. In several poems, however, there is a subtle presence of death, which becomes the dominant theme in the next section, “Introduction to Death, Poems of Solitude in Vermont.” The speaker’s solitude now seems to be more meditative than emotional; his language and thoughts become more meaningful. The triumph of death is now not a tragic masquerade, but a universal, depersonalized force that is an essential part of life (del Rio in Garcia Lorea, p. xxii). In Section Seven, the speaker makes his “Return to the City.” His head is clear now, and he quickly denounces the materialism and greed that he witnesses. In the next section, “Two Odes,” he harshly protests life as it is lived in New York. In “Cry to Rome: From the Chrysler Building Tower,” he blames modern urban civilization for the betrayal of the spirit of Christianity and he offers a prophetic vision of human slavery and war. In “Ode to Walt Whitman,” the speaker decries what he sees as modern man’s corruption of the ideals of humanity, democracy, and love that Whitman preached. The last two sections of the collection, “Flight from New York, Two Waltzes Toward Civilization” and “The Poet Arrives in Havana,” describe the speaker’s happy escape from New York toward “civilization,” that is to say, the Hispanic world. Now life makes complete sense to him, and he portrays Cuban life in a positive, folkloric manner, inspired by songs and customs of the African Cubans.
Three of the 30 poems in Poet in New York —“The King of Harlem,” “Dawn,” and “The Black Son of Cuba”—can be viewed as representative of the overall work. The first two reflect the speaker’s views of New York; the last one expresses joy and relief at being in a Spanish-speaking country once again.
“El rey de Harlem” (“The King of Harlem”)
This poem comes from the second section of the book, “Los negros” (“The Blacks”). A surrealistic barrage of images, the poem begins with four stanzas that introduce a pent-up Harlem, full of despair and oppressed African Americans. It is a dark, primitive scene that expresses a tragic vision: “With a spoon / he gouged out the crocodile’s eyes / and thumped on the monkey-rumps” “the little boys smashed little squirrels” (Garcia Lorca, Poet in New York, p. 19). It hints at the potential of blacks to rise up and riot: “Eternity’s spark still slept in the flint” (Poet, p. 19). These lines “represent the poet’s vision of the world that he passively beholds, a world of violence and agony and stench his conscious mind receives” (Craige, p. 56).
The fifth through the seventh stanzas change the tone and direction of the poem. The speaker reacts to what s/he has seen, telling African Americans to address the injustice brought upon them by Caucasian society: “We must murder the yellow-haired hawkers of brandy / and the comrades of apple and sand;” “You Harlem! You Harlem! You Harlem! / No anguish to equal your thwarted vermilions, … / your hobbled, great king in the janitor’s suit” (Poet, pp. 19-21). Instead of surrealistic imagery painting a picture of oppression, the speaker in these stanzas gives the call to arms to the African-American community in very clear language, promoting violence to achieve its aims, so that the king of Harlem can sing with his people and lead them out of subjugation by white society.
Stanzas Eight and Nine provide momentary relief from the emotion of the previous stanza. Again the speaker describes the moonless night and refers to whites drinking whiskey: “They drink silver whiskey within sight of volcanoes” (Poet, p. 21). This image forecasts the lava-blood that is about to flow down and engulf the European Americans. The volcano is central to Lorca’s vision of the African civilization of Harlem, which is “boiling inside with the hot blood of outrage and sexual passion ready to erupt” (Craige, p. 57).
The tenth stanza repeats the opening lines of the poem and again builds to a climax, this time with the words Blacks, Blacks, Blacks, Blacks. The repetition forms a chant, preparing us for the coming of the blood, which is described in the next five stanzas. “Blood has no doors in your night, lying face up to the sky,” the speaker says (Poet, p. 21). In other words, the blood pulsing underneath the skin of Blacks has no outlet and eventually will boil over and flood the earth: “Blood flows; and will flow / on the rooftops and sheds everywhere; .… / and explode in a low-yellow dawn of tobacco,” that is to say, lava ash that the volcano emits (Poet, p. 23).
This explosion of emotion is followed in the next three stanzas by calm. African American cooks, the waiters and servants of whites, “those who would cleanse with their tongues / the millionaire’s wounds” seek their king in the streets who would act as savior to deliver them from the oppression they experience at the hands of European civilization (Poet, p. 23). A south wind blows in the black mud, suggesting the primeval order of the world (Craige, p. 57).
There is another break to prepare the reader for the last stanzas, which express the triumph of the African American rebellion. The speaker commands blacks not to attempt to climb the impassable wall, which is growing and surrounding the city, to achieve freedom, but rather to “Seek out the great sun of the center” (Poet, p. 25), that is to say, to look for salvation in the natural world. Next, the speaker again chants “Blacks” to goad them on.
The final stanzas describe what will happen when blacks inherit the world after the city’s destruction. The speaker urges them not to fear death, since it is an entirely natural phenomenon: “Never serpent or zebra or mule / That paled at death’s imminence” (Poet, p. 25). Once the city is destroyed, African Americans will repossess the industrial and technological society that isolated and repressed them and reabsorb it into nature: “Black man, only then, only then, only then / can you kiss out your frenzy on bicycle-wheels / or pair off the microscopes in the caves of the squirrels” (Poet, p. 25). Finally, the speaker announces that s/he has heard the plight of the African Americans: “You Harlem in masquerade! / You Harlem, whom torsos of street-clothing menace! / Your murmur has come to me” (Poet, p. 25). These lines refer to Harlem as a center of nightlife for both blacks and whites. The menace of “torsos of street-clothing” suggests the crowds of elegantly dressed Caucasians who would arrive in Harlem nightly to drink in abandon at the many cabarets and bars (C. Brian Morris, “Cuando yo me muera,” p. 27). The speaker views such an invasion as harmful to Harlem’s survival, and he acknowledges the African-American disdain of such an unhealthy encroachment upon their neighborhood.
Lorca’s poem foreshadows to some degree what would happen just four years after his departure. In 1934, in keeping with Lorca’s prediction, a riot erupted in Harlem because of the economic distress caused by the Depression and increasing tensions between the black community and white store owners. Lorca’s sensitivity to Harlem, his intuition about its dynamics, and his status as an outside observer enabled him to write a poem with such prophetic vision. Lorca had a lifelong empathy for Gypsies in Spain that was translated in the New World to blacks, who, for him, represented “a tragic expression of the imprisonment of the blood force of life by the mechanical, depersonalized civilization which is New York City” (Craige, p. 55). Their isolation, marginalization, and oppression by Caucasians bespoke a grave injustice, one that could be fixed by blacks rising up and eliminating the causes of their horrific state.
“La aurora” (“Dawn”)
From the section “Streets and Dreams,” this poem portrays New York City as a modern, technological, industrial behemoth that poisons its inhabitants with its artificial environment. It is a city of skyscrapers and cement, steel and glass, compared to Lorca’s native Andalusia, a beautiful rural region of olive and citrus groves with no large cities. Lorca blamed the modern urban conglomeration for the plight of the average New Yorker; he felt that it caused humans to lose sight of what is important and made them work endlessly for a blighted existence. No matter how hard they worked, the result was the same—this blighted existence.
In this poem, the dawn does not bring hope and light, but rather produces darkness and despair. These are the forces visited upon a technological and industrial mass of slaving and sleepless humanity.
The first two stanzas describe the dawn of New York as bearing “four pillars of slime / and a storm of black pigeons / that dabble dead water”; it moans on towering stairs, “seeking on ledges / pangs traced upon nard [tuberoses]” (Poet, p. 63). The traditionally positive symbols of pigeons/doves and water are negated with the words “black” and “dead.”
In the third stanza the speaker compares the dawn with the Host of the Mass: “Dawn comes, there is no mouth to receive it, / for here neither morrow nor hope is possible” (Garcia Lorca in Ramoneda, p. 209; trans. C. B. Morris). Instead of the Host of the Mass, a furious rabble of coins enter and devour abandoned children. This is a clear denunciation of the corrupting power of money, as represented by Wall Street, and materialism that the speaker saw in the city. It is also a criticism of a city that the speaker considered godless and without soul.
The fourth stanza indicates an awareness of death by the inhabitants of the city: they “know the truth in their bones” (Poet, p. 63). They also know that there will be no paradise or leafless passions, an allusion to freedom from sexual guilt in a return to Eden. The natural world and the hope that flickers is extinguished by a concrete jungle. New Yorkers recreate mechanically and labor without reward.
The son is an urban style of dance music that developed in Cuba in the first few decades of the twentieth century. It combined elements of Spanish folk music, such as the guitar, with those borrowed from the rumba, an Afro-Cuban style of dance music. Along with African rhythms, the son adapted call-and-response singing from the rumba.
The final stanza returns to the image of light, which has been buried by the grime and steel of New York. The lack of light signifies the unnatural and depressing character of New York. Insomniacs wander through the neighborhoods as if they had recently escaped a bloody shipwreck.
“Son de negros en Cuba” (“The Black Son of Cuba”)
This poem, the concluding one in the collection, comes from the tenth section of Poet in New York, “The Poet Arrives in Havana.” As its title indicates, the work was written soon after Lorca landed on the island. It reflects a son, or African-inspired Cuban dance rhythm. The speaker says that s/he will go to Santiago de Cuba in a car of black water when the moon is full. The moon for Lorca was emblematic of death, and the traditionally positive symbol of water is negated by the word “black.” It seems that the vehicle of water is perhaps a hearse carrying the speaker to Santiago. “I’ll go to Santiago” is the refrain of the poem and is repeated a total of 19 times, spaced evenly throughout the work (Poet, p. 137). The refrain lends a musicality and harmonious rhythm to the poem, suggesting that it is to be sung rather than simply read. The eighth and tenth lines indicate a metamorphosis: “When palm would be stork” and “When banana [tree] goes jellyfish” (Poet, p. 137). The trees wish to change into animals of the air and ocean, thereby losing their terrestrial identity. Perhaps they are trying to escape as well, just like the speaker, or maybe they are trying to escape death (Harris, p. 67). Santiago could be seen as a refuge from death, that is, from modern urban civilization.
The twelfth and fourteenth verses refer to Cuban cigar boxes in a very oblique allusion to Lorca’s childhood: “I’ll go to Santiago / with the yellow-haired head of Fonseca / … With the Romeo-Juliet rose” (Poet, p. 137). The poet’s father smoked Cuban cigars, and Federico liked to look at the pictures on the boxes as a child, some with the portrait of Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca, the leader of the Brazilian independence movement and the republic’s first president from 1889-91, others with a picture of Romeo and Juliet, whose names serve as one of the most famous brand of cigars in the world. The boxes Lorca sees in Cuba remind him of his own childhood, full of fond memories and innocence.
Surrealism à la Lorca
The depression, isolation and confusion that Lorca experienced in New York resulted in a poetry that utilized dreamlike images to convey the poet’s perspective on a modern industrial-technological city that he felt to be dehumanizing. Poet in New York represents a radical departure from Lorca’s previous poetry, most notably, the Gypsy Ballads. The shift parallels Lorca’s drastic change in living environment. Most critics refer to Poet in New York as a work influenced by surrealism, but not a true representation of it. While surrealist works typically express a flow of ideas in which the barriers between the conscious and subconscious are removed and very often the poem is an entity unto itself without making reference to outside reality, Lorca did not seek to combine conscious and subconscious experience in his poetry; nor did he agree that poetry should be divorced from a realistic context. He shied away from the term surrealism to describe some of his poetry, commenting instead that his poems contained pure emotion liberated from logical control without losing references to outside reality. However, surrealist influence shows up in the poet’s employment of free association and symbolism unrestrained by logic. Indeed, it is the preponderance of positive and negative symbols that distinguish Lorca’s poetry from that of others, and in Poet in New York, this system of symbols becomes very complex. Take, for example, the first three lines from “The Black ’Son’ of Cuba:” “When a full moon rides over in Santiago de Cuba / I’ll go to Santiago / in a hack of black water” (Poet, p. 137). In Lorca’s poetry, the moon conjures up images of death. The “hack of black water” evokes logicdefying, negative images of a hearse made of black water. Instead of water giving life, its traditional role in poetry, it is taking it away, underscored by the symbolic use of the color black, long associated with evil and death. These images are all the more complex because we are not sure whether the speaker views Santiago as a place of refuge from death or as the stopping point of it.
Thus Lorca, like many other members of the Generation of 1927, frequently employed surrealist imagery in his poetry. However, he was not considered the leader of the surrealist movement in Spanish poetry. Indeed, in a letter written to his publisher, Lorca warns that Poet in New York is not surrealist. Two of his fellow countrymen, Juan Larrea, who moved to Paris in the 1920s and founded a surrealist literary magazine, and Rafael Alberti, were the first Spanish poets to adopt surrealist ideas and techniques to their works. In fact, Alberti probably experimented with surrealism more than any other member of the Generation of ’27. Also, anothér Spanish poet, Jose Maria Hinojosa, moved to Paris in 1925 and eventually helped to disseminate the movement’s ideas in Spain. Despite these contributions to surrealism, the movement never took hold in Spain like it did in France, and to some poets of the Generation of ’27, it meant little (Ramoneda, p. 55).
Most of the Generation of ’27 combined elements from the Spanish lyric tradition with those of the diverse movements occurring in literature in the first three decades of the twentieth century, such as Dadaism, surrealism, “ultraismo,” a movement which attempted to abolish sentimentalism and unnecessary ornamentation in poetry, and “creacionismo,” an offshoot of “ultraismo” started by the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro that promulgated the idea that the poet is totally free to create, independently of any social or moral preoccupation. Several members of the Generation of ’27 also incorporated Spanish fokloric forms into their poetry such as the Spanish ballad and the cante jondo, Andalusian songs of Gypsy origin that express deep passion about some profound sentimental topic. Lorca, in fact, was the most spontaneous and the most original at weaving folkloric elements into his poetry.
Sources and literary context
As stated above, Lorca’s principal inspiration in writing this collection of poems emanates from within. Lorca seems to have been in search of himself when he made the voyage to New York, but what he did not realize at the time is that he was leaving his own, personal natural world for an environment that suppressed all that was natural and life-affirming. His trip to Cuba and his return to Spain in 1930 were his reentry into what he considered a more natural world, free from the stress of modern urban life. Once back in a Hispanic environment, Lorca resumed his old life, becoming positive and focused about what he experienced.
The artists of the era who most influenced Lorca include Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, with whom he had close personal relationships before leaving for New York. In the avant-garde magazine, Gallo, which he founded in 1928 and edited, Lorca acknowledged the influence of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Jean Arp, Le Corbusier (Charles Edouard Jeanneret), Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau, Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, André Breton, and many others. There is no doubt, then, that Lorca was a key player among the most avant-garde writers in Europe at the time he penned the poems that would later be collected together as Poet in New York. Their influence is apparent in the work, although Lorca did separate himself from the mainstream of surrealism, as noted above.
The critical and popular reception of the poems in Poet in New York was less than enthusiastic. Individual poems were first circulated in the early 1930s by publication in periodicals or through readings that Lorca would give to his friends. They were compared to Breton’s and Eluard’s surrealist poetry and were given minor critical attention as serious works of symbolic expression. Lorca’s readers were confused by the sudden change in the poet’s style, language, tone, and technique, and at first many felt that Lorca had made a wrong turn along his creative career path. Some critics felt that Lorca was attempting to escape his fame as a popular poet, while others believed that he was trying to compete with the Spanish surrealist poet Rafael Alberti. When the collection was finally published in 1940, surrealism had been accepted as an expression of the era’s restlessness. Lorca had been executed, the Spanish Civil War had ended, and fascism was spreading across the face of Europe. Readers and critics alike welcomed and appreciated Poet in New York to a degree unseen several years earlier. After Rolfe Humphries translated Lorca’s work in late 1940, it was very favorably reviewed by Conrad Aiken in the New Republic. Aiken recognized Lorca as a “terribly acute critic of America” and praised the work’s creative genius (del Rio in Garcia Lorea, p. x). Today Poet in New York is esteemed as perhaps the most complex, prophetic work in Lorca’s oeuvre—prophetic in that it predicted the Harlem riots that would occur just a few years after Lorca left New York.
For More Information
Anderson, Reed. Federico Garcia Lorca. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Craige, Betty Jean. Lorca’s Poet in New York: The Fall into Consciousness. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1977.
Garcia Lorca, Federico. Poet in New York. Trans. Ben Belitt. New York: Grove Press, 1983.
Gibson, Ian. Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life. New York:
Góngora, Luis de. “Sonnet CLXVI.” Trans. Alix Ingber. trans. Golden Age Spanish Sonnets. 2001. http://www.sonnets.spanish.sbc.edu (15 July 2001).
Harris, Derek. Federico Garcia Lorca: Poeta en Nueva York. London: Grant and Cutler Ltd./Tamesis, 1978.
Morris, C. B. América en un poeta: los viajes de Federico Garcia Lorca al nuevo mundo y la repercusión de su obra en la literatura americana. Seville: Universidad Internacional de Andalucia, 1999.
_____. Son of Andalusia: the Lyrical Landscapes of Federico Garcia Lorca. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997.
_____. “Cuando yo me muera”: Essays in Memory of Federico Garcia Lorca. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988.
Nash, Gary B., et al. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
Predmore, Richard L. Lorca’s New York Poetry: Social Injustice, Dark Love, Lost Faith. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1980.
Ramoneda, Arturo, ed. Antologia poética de la generacion del 27. Madrid: Castalia, 1990.
Watkins, T. H. The Hungary Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.
Williams, Mark. The Story of Spain. Puebla Lucia, Spain: Mirador Publications S.L., 1992.